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Levi's pulling out of Russia reminds people of the country's jean smuggler era

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

As Russia's war in Ukraine grinds on, dozens of Western companies have closed their doors in Russia. Among them, Levi Strauss and Co. The company's halt on sales in Russia conjures up memories of another time during the Soviet era when Western products like blue jeans were in very high demand.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Historian Kristin Roth-Ey of University College London says the Soviet Union's love affair with denim likely began in 1957, when the World Festival of Youth and Students came to Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Drawing thousands of visitors from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

KRISTIN ROTH-EY: And that was the first time that people started to talk about jeans because some of the Americans were wearing jeans. And there was at that time a huge black market that went alongside this festival.

MCCAMMON: Roth-Ey says the demand for jeans only grew during the 1960s, but the government didn't play along.

ROTH-EY: The official stance on this is that jeans, like rock music, are initially officially shunned. It's a sign of decadent Western consumerist culture.

CHANG: And there were other reasons Soviet leaders frowned upon jeans, says Alexei Yurchak of UC Berkeley.

ALEXEI YURCHAK: The Soviet Union had its own economy which was closed to much of the consumer goods from the West. But the socialist economy, which was in competition with capitalism, they didn't want to open its own markets to the West.

CHANG: Yurchak grew up in the Soviet Union and remembers buying his first pair of jeans on a trip to England.

MCCAMMON: Historian Christine Roth-Ey says eventually Soviet leaders decided if you can't beat them, join them.

ROTH-EY: So they launched their own jeans in the early 1970s. They're completely unsuccessful.

MCCAMMON: The thirst for Western denim grew and was memorialized in a 1980s black-and-white Levi's ad where a young man fidgets as Soviet customs officials examine his luggage, but he makes it home with a smuggled pair of Levi's in his suitcase.

CHANG: The black market for Levi's, Lee and Wrangler jeans was fueled by high prices. A pair could fetch as much as an entire month's salary at the time.

ERIC SCHRADER: I was really never like back alley, but I did have to do a lot of creative thinking because Levi's didn't like it.

MCCAMMON: Eric Schrader knows a thing or two about what jeans are worth. He owns Junkyard Jeans in Boise, Idaho, and got his start selling to the black market in the 1980s.

CHANG: Schrader says he would go to JC Penney or Sears and buy up as many Levi's as he could.

SCHRADER: We'd go to a small town in Wyoming, and I'd just go find like a pizza place or a arcade. We'd get a bunch of kids and send them all in.

CHANG: Then he'd strip the jeans to West Germany. From there, they'd make their way to East Germany and beyond.

MCCAMMON: Of course, three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, jeans have a different meaning. Here's Christine Roth-Ey again.

ROTH-EY: There's a whole generation of people in Russia who grew up with what we would consider normal access to consumer goods, who I don't think necessarily have Western goods have a particular mystique. They're just jeans.

CHANG: But as retailers like H&M, Uniqlo and, of course, Levi's close their doors in Russia, there will certainly be fewer pairs to choose from. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Kathryn Fox